Verso, showing partial self-portrait in Realist manner
This is an old story, but still cool. Plus I still own the painting. In 2000, when I was living in Newark, DE, interviewing for curatorial jobs, having completed the Ph.D. in American art history at the University of Delaware, I sold art glass and the occasional art object on Ebay. One time in trolling through the art listings on the site, I came across the image of a small oil on panel Cubist painting that spoke volumes to me. I had completed several years of intensive work on my dissertation, focusing on the early modernist period in American art. I looked at countless images of abstract, colorful, geometric paintings while doing the extensive research needed to complete my project. The painting clearly was a self-portrait and I thought it to be either American or English, dating from the late 'teens to the 1920s. At that time although I was interested, I let it get by. In February 2001 I moved to Allentown, PA, to become head curator of the Allentown Art Museum. Of a weekend, I would spend several hours trolling on Ebay, continuing my art glass sales but also looking occasionally at art offerings. This painting turned up again and this time I did not let it get away. It came either with no frame or a very cheap frame, which I removed. Interestingly, the verso bore a partial self-portrait of a nice academic-looking gentleman, who highlighted his head by surrounding it with dark blue strokes. I enjoyed the painting for several years, doing some research on it but never figuring out who had painted it. I even showed it to my graduate school advisor William Innes Homer, a rainmaker in the history of early American modernism, and he acknowledged it to be intriguing.
Fast forward to around 2005/06 when i had the opportunity to visit the prominent collector and expert in early American modernism, Henry Reed. Reed was a pioneer in collecting work by A. B. Frost Jr., Morgan Russell, James H. Daugherty, and other American modernists, and examples from his collection were often published and exhibited. Reed turned out to be an old-school gentleman and philanthropist. I enjoyed our meeting tremendously and of course was thrilled to be viewing his wonderful collection. Toward the end, I asked him if he'd mind looking at a small modernist painting, unsigned, that I had found on the internet but I knew was something good. If anyone could figure out the artist, I figured it would be he. He readily consented and I brought the painting in from my car, parked outside his home. Reed quickly placed an attribution on the painting, based on similar pieces he had owned. The artist? Jay Van Everen (1875-1947), a name I had heard already, since he had been profiled in several key publications on early American modernist art, including my own advisor's catalogue for a 1975 survey exhibition presented at the Delaware Art Museum. It turns out that Van Everen was a fellow graduate of Cornell University, where he studied architecture. He wound up coming to New York City to study art, and created designs for tiles in the New York City subway system, which are still in place, as well as illustrating children's books. A studio neighbor to James Henry Daugherty, he came under the influence of Daugherty who himself had been impacted by A. B. Frost, Jr. and hence Robert and Sonia Delaunay, the French Orphists. What clued Mr. Reed into the attribution? Not only the quality of the image, but the use of the small wood panel and the re-use of an earlier painting with a partial portrait on the other side, painted on the distinctive gray ground with blue surrounding paint. Reed had owned other similar paintings and some had been included in a small exhibition devoted to Van Everen held at the Whitney Museum in 1972. Reed donated a group of the artist's paintings to the Whitney, which still owns them. Once again, I bought an artwork based on my "gut" and although it took a few years, my feeling was confirmed in spades as the monetary value is far higher than what I paid for the piece.